In retrospect, the clues were there.
When Bears GM Ryan Pace signed Pernell McPhee last offseason, it meant he didn’t have to use his first-round pick on the Bears’ most glaring need, an outside linebacker.
When he traded receiver Brandon Marshall, it opened up an opportunity, in theory, for his eventual first-round pick, Kevin White.
Offseason reconstructions are two-part projects, starting with free agency and extending into the draft.
Pace’s strategy has always been to plug holes via free agency and draft the best available. Still, what he’s done — and hasn’t done — in free agency informs who the Bears could draft next month.
Here are six areas the Bears will address in the draft, in order of urgency, and how their free-agent moves affected them.
1. Defensive end
What they’ve done: Signed Akiem Hicks (two years, $10 million); chose to not re-sign Jarvis Jenkins; signed Mitch Unrein (two years, $2.26 million).
What it means: The Bears’ most glaring hole in their depth chart is one of their two defensive end spots. They’d love to team the 6-5, 324-pound run-stuffing Hicks and nose tackle Eddie Goldman with a dynamic end.
The timing’s right: this year’s draft might be the best ever for defensive linemen.
Who to watch: At 6-7, 291 pounds, Oregon’s DeForest Buckner is the draft’s ideal 3-4 end. The Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year doesn’t figure to make it past other 3-4 teams —the Chargers, Ravens and 49ers— who draft ahead of the Bears at No. 11. Other fits could include Alabama’s run-stopping A’Shawn Robinson and Louisiana Tech’s Vernon Butler.
2. Outside linebacker
What they’ve done: Nothing.
What it means: Something. The Bears could always part with Willie Young or Lamarr Houston later, but it appears the team is satisfied with them opposite McPhee.
Still, it’s never been more important to find young, skilled pass-rushers.
Who to watch: Ohio State’s Joey Bosa could be the first defensive player selected, but the Bears have been linked to Clemson’s Shaq Lawson and, on Friday, to Oklahoma State’s Emmanuel Ogbah. The co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year told NBC Sports Radio he’s scheduled an interview at Halas Hall.
3. Tight end
What they’ve done: Traded Martellus Bennett and a 2016 sixth-round pick to the Patriots for a fourth-rounder; re-signed Zach Miller (two years, $6 million with $2 million in incentives); re-signed Rob Housler (one year, $760,000).
What it means: The Bears need another tight end, preferably an accomplished blocker to pair with the pass-catching Miller. He’d need some versatility, though, in case Miller is injured again in his age 32 season.
Who to watch: The Bears met with Arkansas’ Hunter Henry, considered the draft’s top tight end, at the NFL Scouting Combine. He could go as early as the second round, while Stanford’s Austin Hooper, Ohio State’s Nick Vannett and South Carolina’s Jerrell Adams would also be drafted on Day 2.
4. Offensive line
What they’ve done: Signed Cardinals right tackle Bobbie Massie (three years, $18, million); moved tackle Kyle Long back to right guard; terminated contract of tackle Jermon Bushrod.
What it means: A vote of confidence in left tackle Charles Leno, Jr., who coaches praised during his first full season at the position. The Bears like that their young line can grow together; Long is 27 and Massie 26, while Leno and center Hroniss Grasu are each 24.
However, if Pace is serious about drafting the best player available in the first round, a left tackle might tempt him.
Who to watch: As many as five tackles could be selected in the first round.
Ole Miss’ Laremy Tunsil could go No. 1 overall, while Michigan State’s Jack Conklin, Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley and Ohio State’s Taylor Decker could all be available to the Bears.
5. Running back
What they’ve done: Chose to not re-sign Matt Forte; made offer to the Broncos’ C.J. Anderson, who returned to the team; worked out former Cowboys running back Lance Dunbar.
What it means: Surprisingly, that they want another running back—maybe even a starter. When they let Forte walk, they praised Jeremy Langford and Ka’Deem Carey, only to pursue someone who’d get more snaps than them.
Who to watch: No NFL assistant knows Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott better than the Bears’ Stan Drayton, who coached him before moving to Chicago last year.
Elliott, the clear No.1 running back prospect, said last month he would like to reunite with his former position coach.
6. Inside linebacker
What they’ve done: Signed the Broncos’ Danny Trevathan (four years, $24.5 million); signed the Colts’ Jerrell Freeman (three years, $12 million); chose to not re-sign Shea McClellin.
What it means: In four days, the Bears turned their greatest defensive weakness into, perhaps, their greatest strength. Trevathan turns 26 this week and could hold the position for a long time, while Freeman is only guaranteed $1 million beyond 2016.
McClellin’s departure — to the Patriots, officially, on Friday —then became a fait accompli.
Who to watch: The Bears’ interest in Alabama’s Reggie Ragland makes in the second round or later. Evaluators are split about whether the 6-1, 247-pounder’s college production can translate to NFL excellence.
The Bears’ signing of two undersized inside linebackers seems to open the door to them examining Missouri’s Kentrell Brothers, Oklahoma’s Dominique Alexander and Arizona’s Scooby Wright, all of whom are only 6 feet tall.
Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley